Hey Jazz Guy,
I’m always playing one line. How can I get started playing counterpoint? –One at a Time in Orem
Playing multiple lines and counterpoint is certainly one of the coolest things to do on a guitar. It can literally add another dimension to your playing. A lot of what we know about this musical concept comes from licks like the opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” where there is a counterpoint [Ex. 1] between the highest and lowest notes. However, with a deeper understanding of traditional counterpoint, we can really take it to the next level in a jazz and rock setting. There are fairly specific rules in traditional counterpoint governing intervals and which notes to choose, such as not using parallel fifths. Though there are fewer harmonic rules in jazz counterpoint, it is important to understand the origin of these concepts. This is a heavy topic in itself, and certainly recommended study to improve your contrapuntal abilities. For the sake of our first few examples, these traditional rules will be heeded for the most part.
In classical music, two-note counterpoint is broken down into different categories, primarily based on the ratio of the rhythms. If we use a 1:1 ratio of top note to bottom note, this is called first species counterpoint as in Ex. 2. In Ex. 3 there is a 2:1 ratio between the top note and the bottom note; this is called second species counterpoint. For demonstration purposes, we are keeping the bottom line the same.
Naturally following second species is the third species counterpoint that we see in Ex. 4, which equates to using a 4:1 or 3:1 ratio between the lines. Fourth species counterpoint, like in Ex. 5, basically breaks down to a 1:1 ratio, offset so that there are suspensions created between the lines and each line attacks a note separately, as opposed to simultaneously (as in first species). Finally, we get to use all these rhythm ratios in a free-for-all in Ex. 6, and we call this fifth species counterpoint.
Once we take away the classical harmonic restrictions and think from the perspective of chord changes, we can apply these concepts to jazz. Ex. 7 is a line that connects the 7 to the 5 of F7 chromatically while sustaining the F, giving us a little third species lick.
We play through chord tones contrapuntally in Ex. 8 and generate some interesting interval combinations. If we then open ourselves to chromatic lines, we can get some spectacularly modern sounding dual lines, jumping between wide and small intervals, as in Ex. 9. Interestingly enough, this is usually avoided in traditional counterpoint, making it all the more contemporary when used in a jazz context.
It is also important to remember that not all counterpoint has to be double-stops, such as the line in Ex. 10 that contrasts a descending top note with a motif underneath. Lastly, we combine these various techniques and species to create Ex. 11, a sequence through a turnaround. Here we use motion on top and on the bottom, along with a variety of species and rhythms. In bar 2, starting on the second half of beat one, the intervals gradually get wider to create an effect. We stick mostly to chord tones with this example, but the possibilities are infinite. Counterpoint is one of the best ways to really elevate your music to the next level, and will improve your soloing as well as your chordal and unaccompanied playing. We have only focused on two-note counterpoint, but three and four are possible as well! So start slow, and gradually put the notes and rhythms together. It may even help to write them out so you can see the motion of the lines. Jazz hard, because your one-at-a-time life ends today.
Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jake’s latest release is Evolution [Buckyball].